The Nevada Test Site was created in 1951. U.S. weapon designers at Los Alamos National Laboratory were convinced that small variations in weapon design would have a large effect on the yield of the detonations scheduled for April as Operation GREENHOUSE in the Pacific. However, they just needed a series of small detonations to test their hypotheses and designs. The U.S. DOD, in an effort to save on the huge logistic and construction costs involved in tests at the Pacific Proving Grounds, had been considering a test site within the Continental U.S. for some time, but so far had rejected the notion for fears of political complications.

By 1951, however, the Korean War was underway and the Pacific shipping lanes didn't look quite so safe, especially if the war spread; plus, the war meant that domestic political opposition to testing was lessened. So, that year, the Atomic Energy Commission and Department of Defense selected an area of what was then known as the Las Vegas Gunnery and Bombing Range and set it aside for nuclear testing. Briefly known as the Nevada Proving Grounds in 1952, it reverted to being called the Nevada Test Site within months.

This area was renamed the Nellis Test Range in 1956. Today, it continues to tantalize desert rats who spend their time watching the adjoining installation known to it's owners the U.S. Air Force as Area 51.

The Nevada Test Site (NTS) of the United States Department of Energy, located in southern Nevada, is the home of the United States nuclear testing facilities, though activities have been greatly reduced since the United States signed The Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty in 1996. The last nuclear test by the United States was at NTS on September 23, 1993, but the facility is also home to the United States' program of sub-critical or hydronuclear testing, in which small amounts of plutonium undergo materials testing with high explosives without generating any nuclear yield. The Nevada Test Site has quite a history, and is also, like New Mexico's Trinity Site, a nuclear tourist destination.

The United States, like several other nuclear powers, has tested nuclear weapons pretty much everywhere it could without starting World War 3. It exploded some serious megatonnage in the South Pacific between 1946 and 1962. It detonated a few in the South Atlantic. It tested devices in the Aleutians of Alaska. In Colorado. In Mississippi (yes, Mississippi, I'm not kidding). In New Mexico. And in Nevada. Those test films of GIs sitting out in the desert, watching mushroom clouds wafting up into the stratosphere, just a few miles from where they're sitting? Nevada. That picture of the Vegas strip with a mushroom cloud framed by a neon cowboy? Obviously Nevada. Test films in which mannequin-filled houses are reduced to toothpicks? Nevada again.

Even today, if you look at the population maps of the United States, there isn't a heck of a lot in southern Nevada other than Las Vegas, military bases, and alien mortuaries. Imagine what it was like back in the 1940's and 50's, when the United States was looking to test its precious new machinery of omnicide. Rural Nevada was perfect.

The problem was that winds easily carried fallout from weapons tests well away from the test range, and radioactive debris was carried by the jet stream throughout most of the United States east of NTS. Did this cause any harm? We don't really know. The number of global cancer deaths from atmospheric nuclear testing has been estimated to be anywhere from a few hundred to a few hundred thousand, but of course the actual numbers are impossible to know given the other sources of carcinogenic materials in the environment, including natural radioactivity. Human doses from nuclear weapons testing fallout are probably a few millirem per year, but directly downwind from NTS and other test sites around the world, they're a little higher.

Just about every test condition and device design that could be tested at Nevada probably has been, with the exception of high-yield thermonuclear devices. The big ones produced too much fallout even in airburst tests to detonate above ground in the continental United States, so those were tested at full yield only in the Pacific Ocean testing areas. Some notable highlights of activities at the Nevada Test Site over the past 56 years include:

Operation Buster-Jangle, in which GIs were told to hang out and enjoy the fireworks, but to also cover their eyes until the all clear was sounded. Designed in part to assess the psychological impact of tactical nuclear weapons detonations near ground troops, decontamination procedures for Operation B-J reportedly included cleaning one another off with brooms and brushes. While you're waiting, have a cigarette. Buster-Jangle was also noteworthy for producing one of the funniest and most appropriate pictures of a nuclear test -- a distant mushroom cloud framed by the "Vegas Vic" billboard on the Las Vegas strip. Try your luck, cowboy?

The Grable test in which a 280 mm nuclear artillery shell was fired for the first (and only) time on May 25, 1953. The test films show three or four artillery men pulling the trigger and then scrambling like mad for cover. The only thing cooler would've been to invent a nuclear bazooka. Oh wait, they did!

Operation Upshot-Knothole which generated many of the always-entertaining test films of houses and mannequins being incinerated. The government built houses, warehouses, factories, bridges, and railroads in the middle of the desert just to see how badly nuclear weapons would damage civilian infrastructure. Duck and cover, kids! It's a beautiful world we live in!

The Sedan test of July 6, 1962, part of the Plowshares Program, in which peaceful uses for nuclear explosives were sought. Apparently the purpose of this test was to see how big a hole one could dig. The Sedan Crater is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Look, it's a hole! It's a big, radioactive hole! Take my picture!

The Baneberry test of December 18, 1970, in which an underground test of about 10 kilotons "broke loose" and vented to the atmosphere. This was a no-no under the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 between the US and Soviet Union. Government and non-government estimates of the radiation released from this test seem to vary, but the data I found at the National Cancer Institute says Iodine-131 was detected as far away as Idaho. Don't drink the water. Or the milk.

Astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan got himself arrested at NTS in 1987, while protesting underground nuclear testing by the United States. Sagan had earlier participated in the TTAPS study of nuclear winter, and had long been a vocal detractor of nuclear weapons. Other celebrity trespassers in NTS history include Martin Sheen, Phil Zimmerman and Kris Kristofferson.

And as mentioned above, NTS is still the location of explosives testing that involves nuclear material. From time to time, the United States tests plutonium under high-strain conditions to better understand its metallurgical properties. It does this as part of the United States' Science-Based Stockpile Stewardship program as a way to test its stockpile of weapons without actually conducting a nuclear test. But if the United States ever feels it necessary to drop out of the CTBT (which it has the right to do under strictly defined circumstances) and test a nuclear weapon, NTS will be the place. Let's hope they don't.

The Nevada Test Site may be a mess, and it may be a dark spot in our nation's geography and history, but just as the United States is not the only nation to build nuclear weapons, it also isn't the only one to test them. Russia had Semipalatinsk and Novaya Zemlya. China had Lop Nor, France had Algeria and Polynesia, Britain had Australia (and also used NTS under the 1958 Mutual Defence Agreement), India had Pokhran, Pakistan had the Chagai Hills, and South Africa and/or Israel had the southern Indian Ocean. Who knows where North Korea is going to test -- Tokyo, maybe. Unfortunately, having nuclear weapons requires testing because they're not a valid deterrent otherwise. And there is no good way to conduct a nuclear test. Our predecessors of sixty years ago made the decision that nuclear weapons were necessary instruments of military and foreign policy, and in so doing, created places like NTS which we now live with.

Is NTS an immediate danger to anyone? Not really. Most radiation levels are down to tolerable levels within the base, and are vanishingly small outside it. Though it is on the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund list, it isn't on their National Priorities List, and I'd rather see the government working on Hanford and Rocky Flats anyway. The more important question we now face is this: will our generation be responsible for any more places like the Nevada Test Site?

I hope not.

The Nuclear Weapons Archive Project:
Atomic Veterans History project:
The Nevada Test Site:
Personal visits to the Bradbury Science Museum, 1996-1999


A few weeks ago, I came across an issue of National Geographic in my local laundromat, and by chance, it happened to have an article on weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear ones. Specifically, it talked about the effects of atmospheric nuclear tests on people living upwind or otherwise near the test sites. One photograph was a portrait of a Utah farmer who had been exposed to fallout as a boy. His throat was badly scarred from several thyroid cancer operations. Another was a picture of a Kazak woman and her two grown sons, both of whom were profoundly retarded, and unable to care for themselves. Then there was a picture of some aborted fetuses (spontaneously or otherwise) from Russian women exposed to radioactive fallout.

It took a lot of deep breaths not to become physically ill in the laundromat.

Never again. Please?

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